Sunday, September 13, 2020

These Festive Nights - no punctuation, no paragraphs, no problem

I have been ploughing, assiduously and laboriously, through Marie-Claire Blais' These Festive Nights, the English translation of the Quebec writer's well-regarded 1995 novel Soifs.
"Ploughing" suggests that this is hard work, and indeed it is. Ms. Blais has won accolades and prizes for her expansive oeuvre, of which These Festive Nights is often considered the pinnacle. But beach reading it is not. This is dense, stream-of-consciousness stuff, often going off on flights of poetical fancy, but as often as not consisting of a rather turgid series of thoughts, memories and snippets of conversations. The prose is rife with repetitions, non-sequiturs, and scattershot trains of thought. There is a bewildering parade of characters, locations across the world, and small story arcs that may or may not be related to the main one. Ostensibly, it is about a multi-day festival in a tropical location, but really there are only occasional references to that - it is more about love, grief, family, age, war, gender, racism, art, and a whole slew of other abstract concepts.
Much of it is undeniably well-written (and/or
well-translated by Sheila Fischman), but it is heavy going, and not least because of the punctuation, or lack hereof. There (almost) no periods, quote marks, or paragraphs, just lots and lots of commas in a single unbroken 260-page paragraph. Funnily enough, there is the odd period, every few pages or every twenty pages or so, seemingly at random, and there are a few question marks, and even one semi-colon that I have noticed. Is there some deep plan behind all this? What it does mean is that reading the book requires more attention and  concentration, and something about the massed, unbroken text seems to make it even harder to digest than it would otherwise be.
This is not a new technique - Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Samuel Beckett were experimenting with this approach almost a certury earlier, and many authors since have gone down that route for one reason or another, including William Faulkner, Jose Saramago and, more recently, Lucy Ellmann's 1,000-page novel Ducks, Newburyport - but it is presumably a very deliberate decision on the author's part. I'm still not very sure what Ms. Blais feels it adds to the book, though, aside from maybe making it appear more erudite and deep than it actually is. Personally, I think it detracts from the overall appeal. But then I don't get the impression that Ms. Blais is overly concerned with her potential audience. She is clearly an intense, driven personality, almost totally divorved from commercial and populist considerations.
Anyway, I will finish the book, if only out of obstinacy. But will I have enjoyed it, will I be a better person for it? Probably not.

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